Brodsky’s Epiphany: “Nativity Poem” (1989)



Nativity Poem
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

I’ve posted this before, but its worth repeating.

Joseph Brodsky said about himself, “I’m Jewish; a Russian poet, an English essayist – and, of course, an American citizen.” Although born into a Jewish family, during the siege of Leningrad he was apparently baptized at the age of two in a country parish. He began writing poetry as a young man, and incurred the disapproval of the Soviet authorities. In 1972 he was expelled and, with W. H. Auden’s help, came to the United States. While he learned English and wrote essays in that language, his attempts at poetry in his adopted tongue were unsuccessful; he is thus known in English through skillful translations. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. Starting in 1962 and continuing until his death he wrote an annual Christmas poem. While his own relationship to the Christian faith was ambiguous – he once joked that he was “a Christian by correspondence” – it is clear in his poems that he understood the implications of the Incarnation. He believed that “Christmas deals with the ‘calculation’ of life and the existence of the individual”. The following poem, written in Russian by Brodsky in 1989, was translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heany (himself the Nobel Prize for Literature 1995) and published in 2000 in The New Yorker.

Imagine striking a match that night in the cave:
Imagine crockery, try to make use of its glaze
To feel cold cracks in the floor, the blankness of hunger.
Imagine the desert – but the desert is everywhere.

Imagine striking a match in that midnight cave,
The fire, the farm beasts in outline, the farm tools and stuff;
And imagine, as you towel your face in the enveloping folds,
Mary, Joseph, and the Infant in swaddling clothes.

Imagine the kings, the caravans’ stilted procession
As they make for the cave, or, rather, three beams closing in
And in on the star, the creaking of loads, the clink of a cowbell;
(No thronging of Heaven as yet, no peal of the bell

That will ring in the end for the infant once he has earned it).
Imagine the Lord, for the first time, from darkness, and stranded
Immensely in distance, recognizing Himself in the Son
Of Man: His homelessness plain to him now in a homeless one.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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